Composite image of asteroid Bennu taken with the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft cameras on December 2, 2018.
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A NASA space capsule carrying a sample of rocky material retrieved from the surface of an asteroid three years ago headed for Earth this weekend. The spacecraft is scheduled for a hot reentry and parachute landing in the Utah desert today.
Weather forecasts are favorable, and the OSIRIS-REx robotic spacecraft is on schedule to launch the sample return capsule for its final descent without the need for further flight path adjustments, NASA officials said at a briefing on Friday.
Mission managers expect it to land at a specific location at the U.S. Army’s vast test and training range in Utah, west of Salt Lake City, said Sandra Freund, a program manager at Lockheed Martin, which designed and built the spacecraft. ship.
The round, bubblegum-shaped capsule is scheduled to land by parachute at 5:55 p.m. Bulgarian time, about 13 minutes after entering the upper atmosphere at approximately 35 times the speed of sound. It will end a seven-year journey.
OSIRIS-Rex is ready to return to Earth after stopping the loss of samples
If successful, the OSIRIS-REx mission, a joint effort between NASA and University of Arizona scientists, will bring the third and largest asteroid sample ever returned to Earth for analysis, following two similar missions by the Japanese space agency in the past 13 years.
OSIRIS-REx took its sample from Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid discovered in 1999 and classified as a “near-Earth object” because it passes relatively close to our planet every six years. Scientists put the odds of it hitting Earth at 1 in 2,700 at the end of the 22nd century.
Illustration of the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft as it retrieves the sample from asteroid Bennu.
Bennu is small for asteroids, only 500m in diameter – slightly wider than the Empire State Building – but small compared to the cataclysmic asteroid Chicxulub, which struck Earth about 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs.
Ingredients of life come from space, asteroid samples suggest
Like other asteroids, Bennu is a primordial relic of the early solar system, whose present-day chemistry and mineralogy are virtually unchanged since it formed about 4.5 billion years ago. It contains valuable clues about the origin and development of rocky planets like Earth, and may even contain organic molecules similar to those needed for life to develop.
“We’re literally looking at geological materials that formed before the Earth ever existed,” Dante Lauretta, the mission’s principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson, told reporters last month.
OSIRIS-REx was launched in September 2016 and reached Bennu in 2018, then spent nearly two years orbiting the asteroid before getting close enough to plunge its robotic arm into the loose surface on October 20, 2020 . in a grab-and-go maneuver. The spacecraft embarked on a 1.93 billion km journey back to Earth in May 2021.
The Bennu sample is estimated at 250 grams, far exceeding the amount of material carried by asteroid Ryugu in 2020 and asteroid Itokawa in 2010.
How a NASA probe managed to sample an asteroid
Upon arrival, the new sample will be flown by helicopter to a “clean room” set up at the Utah Test Site for initial testing. It will then be transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to be broken down into smaller specimens promised to about 200 scientists in 60 laboratories around the world.
Meanwhile, the main body of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is expected to continue its journey to explore another near-Earth asteroid.